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Journey by Back Roads into Japan’s Past

4 minute read

The wooden notice-board carries the kind of travelers’ advice common across Asia. There are the recommended prices for porters and transport, the usual warnings against pushy vendors selling fakes. News on bandits in the area catches our attention: it seems a little paranoid in law-abiding Japan. But it’s the sizeable reward for turning Christians in to authorities that offers the most obvious hint that it has been a while since this bulletin was updated.

Walking the ancient Nakasendo highway from Kyoto to Tokyo is a trip into a nation’s past. As the reproduction notices suggest, travel along the mountain route was highly regulated and checkpoints dotted the road. Only feudal lords and their aristocratic assistants, the samurai, could use it. Women were forbidden to journey independently, and travelers who looked even slightly androgynous had to unbutton sometimes for inspection. Travelers were also required to stamp on a Christian cross. Hesitation meant instant decapitation.

The regulationsand rewardsexpired 150 years ago with the end of the Tokugawa shogunate. These days commoners of any gender can stroll along the old road, parts of which have become quiet backstreets, while other sections remain mountain track. Despite trail markers and helpful shouts from farmers knee-deep in paddies, it is still easy to get lost. Our group of five took a 12-day journey with Walk Japan, whose guides are well-versed in the route’s history and the concerns of traditional inn owners, who are often nervous about foreigners not knowing how to behave. For information on packages, call (852) 2817-2304.

Trips start in Kyoto with a little training in guesthouse etiquette. On entry, for instance, you should slip off shoes and put on slippers or go barefoot on tatami mats (that are usually in the dining room and bedrooms). Wear a separate pair of slippers in the bathroom (forgetting to change back and walking around in lavatory shoes is a horrifying faux pas). In the anteroom of bathing rooms, disrobe and wash vigorously under the showers. Only when spotless can you soak.

Culturally sensitized, our group sets off on our trek from Mitake in the Kiso River Valley, two hours’ drive east of Kyoto. The advent of railways made backwaters of many towns along the old Nakasendo path and, in a happy turn for visitors, isolated the ancient wooden settlements from modern encroachment. Mitake’s suburbanites may have forgotten the road, but the signs are still there. Lurid azaleas and miniature topiary pines trace its zigzag route past new housefronts and tiny gardens. (The kinks and bends were originally designed to slow down cavalry attacks.) By the roadside are vegetable plots as well as piles of rice husks, which will be mixed with vinegar to pickle the crops. Shrines to the monk Jizo and the goddess Kannon, the travelers’ protectors, promise safe passage and future discoveries.

Late in the day we hike up a steep ascent into the quiet shadows of a stand of pines. The name of the pathLeading the Ox Up By Its Noseexactly describes the gradient. A statue of Kannon with a horse’s head commemorates the pack animals whom no amount of nasal persuasion could keep from collapse. That night we stay in Hosokute at a wooden inn, last rebuilt in 1880. Swallows nest inside the doorway, as they have for generations. The floor flexes under our feet as we step gingerly across knotholes and gaps in the boards. But the plumbing is modern: warmed and soothed by a soak in the deep, hot bath, we eat dinner wearing long, cotton yukata gowns and sitting on the floor at low, lacquered tables. The innkeeper produces a feast of baked river fish and mountain-grown vegetables, which we wash down with cold beer and warm sake.

The following days offer gentle climbs to passes with views of snow-capped peaks, visits to historic shrines and stays at more inns, some now museums. We buy cheap sushi lunches at small-town supermarkets. Each evening, stone lanterns, which once marked village boundaries, are lit to signal the day’s end. Summits are adorned with stones carved with haiku, such as this passage left by Princess Kazonomiya in 1864 on her way to an arranged marriage, escorted by a retinue of 10,000: “As we rush through the pass I look back towards the capital and ponder the transience of existence.”

Modern Japan is rarely far away. At Magome, buses drop tour groups off for a walk down the steep hill dotted with wooden houses, rushing streams and waterwheels. But mostly we amble alone, measuring in eras the distance separating us from our neon destination.

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